Nuns' work at hospice soon comes to a close
The sisters' advanced ages have made it difficult to provide care.
PARMA, Ohio (AP) -- For nearly 50 years, the Dominican sisters of Hawthorne have fed, bathed and cared for more than 12,000 cancer patients at the Holy Family Cancer Home.
But their work there will soon end when lay staff take over their duties and the nuns return to their New York convent.
"Obviously, there is a certain sadness," said Tom Mullen, who leads the Cleveland Diocese's health and human services secretariat. "But when we said, 'Let's talk about the transition and keeping the mission alive,' you could see the joy return to their faces. I have such respect for these women. We stand upon their shoulders."
One of those women, 80-year-old Sister Mary Benedict, came to Holy Family in 1968 when the hospice was licensed to care for 100 patients. Today it can take 37, even though only 12 beds were filled this week.
Catholic Charities last week agreed to keep the hospice open with lay staff. The nine nuns still working there will return to their motherhouse in Hawthorne, N.Y., to be reassigned.
The order runs five hospices, but the sisters' dwindling numbers and advanced ages have made it too difficult to continue running all of them. Of those still at Holy Family, only two nuns are physically able to provide bedside care.
"Good Irish genes," said Sister Kevin, one of those who continues to bring meals and medicine to the patients. The 76-year-old Yankees fan hopes to be sent somewhere in her native New York.
But the transition could be harder for others, like Sister Mary Benedict, who has no surviving family.
"When Mother Superior called to tell me, I said, 'Well, good, I don't like the cemetery here anyway,'" she said, smiling at her own good-natured sarcasm.
"Things like this will keep happening as long as there is a shortage of vocations," she said. "These are difficult times. For a long time we've been understaffed and that means we took fewer patients."
Their order is small, but has grown even smaller -- down to 65 members from a peak of 125. The number of Catholic nuns in the United States has decreased from 180,000 in 1965 to 73,000 last year.
Times may get tougher financially, too. Patients have always gotten free care at Holy Family, with the nuns managing to run the hospice on donations, volunteer help and dividends from the community's portfolio.
Mullen says Catholic Charities now will need to take Medicaid payments.
Sister Christopher, the Parma superior, said the decision for the nuns to leave was never about money.
When the news started to spread last week of the sisters' departure, several staff members offered to take pay cuts to keep them there.